Wednesday, October 12, 2011

To Althea, who rode the train

Checking a passenger list recently, I came across the name Althea. It's not a common name, and it brought to mind Richard Lovelace's poem, “To Althea, from Prison.” And it prompted me to revisit the poem and to look up Richard Lovelace on Wikipedia. The poem is a familiar one, if only for the first few lines of the last stanza. It was well-worth rereading, especially after learning that Lovelace actually did spend time in prison:

When Love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my Gates;
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates:
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fetter'd to her eye;
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep,
Know no such Liberty.

When (like committed Linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my KING;
When I shall voice aloud how Good
He is, how Great should be;
Inlarged Winds that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron Bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage;
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Lovelace, born in 1618 into a well-to-do family, was the son of Sir William Lovelace, a member of the Virginia Company, and Anne Barnes Lovelace, daughter of Sir William Barne and a granddaughter of a Lord Mayor of London and an Archbishop of York. Given his circumstances, he grew to be a strong defender of the King Charles I and the Royalists in the conflict between King and Parliament.

He fought on the Royalist side in the 1640 Bishops' War, after Charles imposed bishops on the Church of Scotland. It was a precursor to the English Civil Wars. In 1641 he led a group of men to seize and destroy a petition for the abolition of episcopal rule in the Scottish church. The following year he presented the House of Commons with a pro-Royalist petition, which was supposed to have been burned. These actions landed him in Gatehouse Prison on April 30, 1642, but he was released on bail on June 21 of the same year on that condition that he avoid communication with Parliament.

Yet that brief incarceration inspired one of the most well-known poems in the English language. For Lovelace, the power of human love transcends the confinement of the stone walls and iron bars. The sublime eroticism of the first stanza: “When I lie tangled in her hair,/And fetter'd to her eye;/The Gods that wanton in the Air,/Know no such Liberty.” ought to be as well-remembered as the first lines of the last stanza. His use of the “fetter'd” “bound” reminds us that there can be freedom in the bonds between lovers.

Was there really an Althea who visited Lovelace in prison? There is no evidence for it, but I'd like to think there was. While Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Reginald Frampton paints her as a redhead (with what would later be called a Princess Leia hairdo), I imagine her as having long, dark hair and sparkling brown eyes, and looking very much like the woman I married.

And for the Althea who rode the train, my thanks for reminding me of this beautiful poem.